Can the Simple Act of Storytelling Help Them Heal?

Let us celebrate and support the invaluable writing programs for veterans within our communities. And then let us listen to the stories our veterans speak.
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When you have suffered a major setback, experienced betrayal or loss, what have you found brought you some relief? Did the ear of a friend help? Someone listening, not trying to solve your problem, but showing in their eyes that they care. They hear, and they care.

Telling our stories helps us heal. It releases some of the energy the experience created and begins to externalize the experience. In telling it, in giving the story to another, it is not ours alone. Someone is sharing it with us. In enabling another to understand and have empathy, we move out of the sense of isolation the experience fostered into community, a requirement for healing.

In the last 20 years, medical practice has increasingly recognized the importance of what's come to be called "narrative medicine" to the patient's healing. Many medical schools such as Columbia University now have Narrative Medicine programs. Columbia's "fortifies clinical practice with the narrative competence to recognize, absorb, metabolize, interpret and be moved by the stories of illness."

Recognition of the value of storytelling's ability to heal is evident in the plethora of writing workshops for veterans that have sprung up across the country since troops began returning from deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Poet and author Maxine Hong Kingston began the first veterans writing project in 1993 in the Bay Area, where she witnessed the healing power of writing about war experiences and sharing them in a group. "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace" resulted from that project. Warrior Writers began in New York City in early 2007, providing writing and art workshops to veterans to create a culture that articulates veterans' experiences. It now makes their workshops available around the country. There is Veterans Writing Project in Washington, D.C., and others exist in Reno, Nev., Ogden, Utah, San Diego and various veterans administration medical centers. Amherst, Mass. has the Veterans Education Project and the Hudson Valley area of New York has the Veterans Writing Project. The Writers Guild Foundation of Los Angeles runs the Military Veterans Writing Workshop, and New York University holds the Veterans Writing Workshop.

A unique program that enables veterans to both write their story and tell it is the Telling Project. It works with veterans in universities, communities and organizations to produce innovative performances. After interviews, trainings and rehearsals, veterans and their family members tell their stories on stage for their communities. The Telling Project has performed in Eugene and Portland, Ore., Seattle, Sacramento, Washington, D.C., Starkville, Miss., Baltimore and Iowa City, enabling veterans to speak their truths and their communities to listen.

For a few years the National Endowment for the Arts supported a writing project called "Operation Homecoming" to help U.S. troops and their families write about their wartime experiences. This program brought distinguished writers to military installations to conduct writing workshops. A related call for writing submissions resulted in more than 1,200 submissions and 12,000 pages of writings. Almost 100 of those were featured in the anthology, "Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families."

Writing is an essential step in telling one's story, because writing enables us to create order out of memory's chaos. In sorting through the chaos and stringing together a narrative, we make clear the experience's meaning -- for ourselves and for others. Our truth might not only allow empathy but enlighten.

I once sat with a veteran of World War II, who like my father had been among the liberators of the Nazi concentration camp the GIs referred to as Nordhausen. Like so many other WWII veterans, especially those who had been among the camp liberators, this gentleman had never spoken about his memories of the war. But as we sat there, me listening and showing familiarity with his subject and keen interest, he began to unwind his memory, a knotted spool of thread. When he came to a knot, I encouraged him to continue talking.

"You know," he said at one point, "I've never been able to make sense of my memories. But now, with your help, I see how the pieces fit." A few minutes later he turned to his wife of 62 years and said, "I have struggled to stay alive every day since." Her face whitened in astonishment as she clasped his hands.

Trauma produces an intensification of senses and then shuts them down to protect the mind from becoming overwhelmed. And while this is life-saving in the short term, it is soul-numbing in the long term. Those frozen, intense sense memories get encapsulated in the brain and refuse to fade, taking us whirling back in a second, unpredictably. Finding a way to a narrative, to connecting the pieces, gives us a way to defuse those terrifying memories, to release the pressure that has built up around them. And then to see someone listen to the story, to hold our hands in compassion and love -- that opens the door to the possibility of safety. To coming home.

Let us celebrate and support the invaluable writing programs for veterans within our communities. And then let us listen to the stories our veterans speak. On Sunday night, "60 Minutes" had a feature about Operation Project Exit that takes veterans suffering PTSD back to Iraq as a means of healing. As one young veteran said at the end of the show, "I always hear people complain about stuff, and it just makes me mad because a lotta people don't understand. They don't see the stuff that -- they just go about their daily lives, while there's still people dyin' every day. For them. And it -- it upsets me a lot."

Let us listen and heed.

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